New Delhi: There is no photo of Mahatma Gandhi, Sankha Samanta is reasonably certain, which he would not recognize immediately. “The moment you show me one, I could tell you where it was taken, and when,” he says. “That is how much I have pored over them, to find ideas for stamps.”
Since 1947, the postal department has issued 33 commemorative stamps on Gandhi, in addition to a handful of more standard “definitives”. Of those 33, Samanta has designed 14, making him the most prolific Gandhi stamp artist. “We call him the Gandhi man,” says Suresh Kumar, one of the department’s six empanelled stamp artists. “While some of us may use graphics for our portraits, he does mostly hand-drawn portraits. And he does them very well.”
Stamp act: India’s most prolific Gandhi stamp artist Sankha Samanta. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Samanta, a 44-year-old man with a square, pacific face, is a graduate of the very first master of fine arts batch from the Delhi College of Arts. Although not an employee of the department, the lion’s share of his work involves stamp design, commissioned at Rs9,300 per approved stamp and Rs2,300 per unapproved design. Occasionally, there is another project; when the chain of Barista coffee shops opened, Samanta, as design consultant, conceptualized its textured, streaked orange walls.
In 1987, Samanta visited Dak Bhavan, armed with his portfolio. As a test, he was asked for an Indira Gandhi portrait, which he “laboriously” worked on for 20 days. He now laughs at that. “A portrait takes just a few days at this point, but back then, I was still a student.”
Samanta passed that test and as an empanelled artist, sketched his first official stamp, on the execution of the freedom fighter Veer Narayan Singh, who was tied to the business end of a cannon shortly before it was fired. “I’d done a colour version, showing the British soldiers—I’d researched their uniforms at the time and everything,” he says. “That was all cut, because they wanted to be diplomatic!”
Since then, Samanta has designed nearly 250 stamps, although he is not sure of the exact number. “My father still scolds me about that, that I don’t preserve my stamps or catalogue them,” he says. He designed the first embossed stamp as well as the first scented one, a 2006 issue that, when rubbed, releases tiny puffs of a sandalwood aroma.
Not every stamp is equal, and those on Gandhi, among the department’s best-sellers, are accorded particular care. “Gandhi is among one of the very few exceptions to our internal rule, that a personality can form the basis of only one commemorative stamp,” says Manju Kumar, the department’s director of philately.
A stamp on Gandhi, from commission to final approval, takes longer than other stamps; Samanta’s estimate is two-three months. Partly, this is a result of special scrutiny. “Stamps are usually approved by the deputy director general, but a Gandhi design can go as high as the ministerial level,” Kumar says. “We look for creativity, but we don’t encourage too many of these effects that artists use. A Gandhi should look like a Gandhi.”
But partly also the long life cycle is the result of the extensive research that Samanta devotes to his task. “If I show him arriving in South Africa,” he says, “I not only look up the clothes he would have been wearing, but also the kind of luggage he had, and how many bags he brought.”
Eye for detail: (clockwise from above) A letter posted with the first ever Indian stamps issued on Gandhi, on 15 August 1948; Samanta based the train carriage on the one in Shyam Benegal’s ‘The Making of the Mahatma’. The stamps bear more scenes inspired by films, as well as the front page of the Bombay Chronicle dated 13 March 1930. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
In a 2007 set of four stamps on the “Centenary of Satyagraha”, one panel showed Gandhi’s forced disembarkation from a South African train at Pietermaritzburg station. “To find out what that train looked like, I watched five movies, including Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and Shyam Benegal’s The Making of the Mahatma,” Samanta says. “Gandhi only had a long shot. Benegal showed it up close.”
Some of his research is in the service of making points that, he says, “are never noticed”. In 2005, the department printed Samanta’s set of four stamps to commemorate 75 years of the Salt Satyagraha, which went on to win an award for best stamp of the year. One stamp’s background—the front page of the Bombay Chronicle dated 13 March 1930—features nearly unreadable text. But Samanta chose it for a reason.
“Look closely, the fourth or fifth headline is: ‘1,000 women participate’,” he says. “That is to show what a mass movement the Salt Satyagraha was, for women in a fairly conservative country to come out of their homes and take part.” It is, he admits, too subtle for the casual licker and sticker of stamps, but “the philatelists look for this kind of stuff”.
Samanta deploys similar near-academic zeal for other subjects as well. Last week, asked to do a stamp on Rajasthan’s Dilwara Temples and finding no good copyright-free photos, he travelled to take his own. Another time, researching a stamp marking “100 Years of Railways in the Doon Valley”, he visited Dehradun, hunted for a still-extant structure from the period, found an old railway shed, and worked that into his design.
This research is conducted, he notes, out of his own pocket, because often the material provided by the stamp’s proponent or the department proves inadequate. “Sometimes for a stamp initiated by a private individual, the material never comes,” he says. For subjects such as Gandhi, “we don’t have copyright for images from, say, coffee-table books, and the department doesn’t pay for travel and research. It is almost a Gandhian act to do a Gandhian stamp”.
But talking to Samanta, clearly he wouldn’t trade it for the world. He talks volubly of the relative research merits of the Gandhi Memorial Museum, National Gandhi Museum and the Gandhi Smriti Museum. He studies hefty books on the freedom struggle, looking for new ideas for images.
“When you think of Gandhi, you think of his simplicity,” Samanta says. “So even the design has to be simple. It cannot be glamorous, yet it has to be striking. It has to be poignant, to show how his life became his mission. Gandhi’s power was in his simplicity and reflecting that in a stamp is the hardest thing.”